Rhona Smith’s statement raises questions

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United Nations (U.N.) Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Cambodia Rhona Smith speaks during a news conference at the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, March 31, 2016. REUTERS/Samrang Pring

On July 20, the Facebook page of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) Cambodia shared the concern expressed by the Special Rapporteur Rhona Smith about the political situation in Cambodia.

She wrote, “I am concerned about reports of voter intimation in the lead up to the national elections”

“I welcome recent government calls to local authorities to avoid discrimination during the campaign and encourage the government to condemn in very clear terms voter intimidation and to clarify that calling for a boycott in a non-compulsory vote is permitted,” she added.

As a Special Rapporteur, Professor Smith has the responsibility to “ensure universality, objectivity and non-selectivity in the consideration of human rights issues, and the elimination of double standards and politicisation.”

Unfortunately, her recent statement is politically motivated, biased and unprofessional. It causes public confusion and discontent over the upcoming election.

It is politically motivated because the statement was issued just nine days before the general election, which has considerable impact on public sentiment and voters’ decision on the elections. It is politically biased as her statement is in line with the opposition movement that is trying to sabotage electoral democracy by calling for an election boycott. The truth is the Special Rapporteur has “never” issued any press statement against undemocratic conducts of other political factions.

The Special Rapporteur seems to lose sight of dangerous populist politics being carried out by the opposition movement that has called for a military insurrection against the government, incites class struggle, provokes ultra-nationalism, and incites racial hatred and xenophobia by instigating anti-Vietnamese and anti-Chinese sentiments. These actions undermine hard-earned peace and democracy in Cambodia.

It is unprofessional given that she often resorts to issuing statements in clear breach of the Code of Conduct for Special Procedures Mandate-holders of the Human Rights Council and the Manual of Operations of the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council.

Her judgment is subjective and flawed – which is against the prerogative of the Special Procedures Mandate-holders who shall “always seek to establish the facts, based on objective, reliable information emanating from relevant credible sources, that they have duly cross-checked to the best extent possible”.

Article 4 (3) of the Code of Conduct also stipulates that, “Without prejudice to these privileges and immunities, the mandate-holders shall carry out their mandate while fully respecting the national legislation and regulations of the country wherein they are exercising their mission.”

However, the Special Rapporteur has breached her duty and violated Cambodian laws. By stating that: “calling for a boycott in a non-compulsory vote is permitted”, she does not respect Article 142 of Cambodian Election Law, which punishes those who prevent others from going to vote.

According to Para 50 of the Manual of Operations of the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council, “mandate holders should engage in a dialogue with the Government through the communications procedure before resorting to a press release or other public statement.”

By all accounts, Professor Smith has violated the Code of Conduct for Special Procedures Mandate-holders of the Human Rights Council. Her statement should reflect an objective and non-partisan assessment of the political situation in Cambodia. Her words do matter in shaping public perception on Cambodia. Therefore, she must be more prudent in what she says.

Cambodia welcomes and respects the role of international organisations in promoting democracy and human rights but it is entitled to defy irresponsible and biased statements. As it is, Cambodia cannot be divided any longer. Cambodian society is already politically polarized due to extreme political views and foreign interference. So why make things worse?

Professor Rhona Smith should help reduce political extremism and populism in Cambodia by having a fair and just assessment of the political situation in the country and taking into consideration the country’s historical factors, its socio-economic conditions, and also its political culture. We urge more professionalism, neutrality and honesty from the Special Rapporteur. These qualities determine the effectiveness of her office and at the end of the day these are what that matter most.

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